As I have observed and studied motivation I have simultaneously uncovered a very dark and sinister motivation that creates urgent action, but has its roots in some incredibly destructive power – shame. Shame is a tool we have probably all been exposed to at some point in our lives. I felt it as a child, when I inadvertently made an error, only to suffer the scowling eyebrows of correcting adults as they use shame to correct my behavior. I have used it as an adult to coerce action from friends or family or, worse yet, my own kids and I have had it used on me (as an adult) when under the authority of poorly equipped superiors.


Stealth mode

What makes shame so insidious is its beginning demeanor. It comes across as so passive and quite, so unintentional and accidental. Yet it is the knife in the gut as your ‘trusted’ friend stares you in the eyes, watching you sink to your knees as he holds the blade in its destructive mark. The worst part about shame is that it has become so prevalent in society, that we will even bring it upon ourselves. Self-induced shame over any action is not a normal response. It is a trained response to a given set of circumstances. The power of it though is that once trained – the enforcer can leave, but the shame will remain and resurface any time an action demands it.

I think one of the most powerful and yet broken lessons we learn is the shame of failure. Now, let me go on record as saying: “I do NOT believe that failure is an indication of brokenness, nor is it deserving of shame!” Yet shame remains as a very strong influencer of action and remedy. Somewhere in our lessons of life we learn the shame of failure and the ensuing quiet commitment to never ever feel that ridicule again. Shame works great for managers who are outcome oriented and have no interest in nurturing the process or the motivation. They don’t care how you get it done – just give them the result they want and they might leave you alone. In the end shame is a drain. It saps all the energy from you, it is sourced in brokenness and is essentially ‘playing not to lose’. It creates a temporary result that has no long term sustainability and is destructive to all involved.

Leaders that quit

So what do we do with Leaders who quit? Shame them? Quitting is generally associated with failure and failure is typically frowned upon. We want winners. We want people who ‘go the distance’. Shame is often the coercive fuel that is used to keep leaders relentlessly pushing forward toward ever increasing productivity and performance. But it comes at a price and that price is safety and predictability. Leaders who are shamed will be less likely to risk a hunch or to act on intuition, because the down-side to failure or quitting a path of action that is not producing – is too shameful to bare. So they take the predictable road, they travel the less risky path and punch out the incremental changes that pose as advancement. It is safe there – but there is very little innovation.

Leaders should quit

Instead, I think we should encourage Leaders to quit anything that is clearly not working and not shame them for trying. Jack Welsh (former CEO of GE) is a strong advocate of failure in business. His perspective is: ‘Fail early. Learn from the failure. Make the adjustment and press on to success.’ Failure is an integral part of his designed path toward successful business.

In summary then, Leaders should quit. They should have the freedom to try the things they believe in and have safety from shame – if it doesn’t succeed the first time. They should be able to quit the things that are not working as soon as they discover it and be free to move on to the next without guilt or shame.

Two questions then:

  • What past leadership moments have caused you to feel shame?
  • If that shame were not there, how would your performance change?